Skip to main content

He should be dead right now. He’s got more urine than blood!


The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
(2013)

The key to a scene-stealing supporting turn is often precisely that the movie isn’t all about that character. You’re left wanting more, but if you were to get it you’d likely find the character watered down to fit the mold of a traditional protagonist. It’s why Hannibal Lector is so effective in Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs, but much less so in Hannibal. I doubt that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone would have worked if it had revolved around Jim Carrey’s David Blane-esque shock magician, but it would surely have been more inspired than what we get. The big problem with the film is that Steve Carrell’s Burt is both dislikeable and not even vaguely interesting.


Perhaps part of the problem is that Burt doesn’t give Carrell much comic mileage. He rarely has the chance to act-out and he’s unable to make Burt a prick to root for. The opening sequence, during which awful generic rock music adorns his and Anton Marvelton’s (Steve Buscemi) stage show, is impressively cheesy. But then quartet of writers choose to plough a furrow that seems tiresomely obvious. Childhood friends Burt and Anton now hate each other. Burt is predatory pig for and of course he has lost touch with made him want to perform in the first place; all magic has gone from his act. You can see Burt is set to plot a standard path to redemption, but it’s one he never earns.


It’s all very well to show him up as a complete tit when he attempts to perform his and Anton’s act solo, but the big finale in which he must impress us with his true craft proves unpersuasive. Likewise, we can’t get behind his coupling with browbeaten assistant Olivia Wilde because he’s such a jerk, and because there’s a complete absence of chemistry between the actors. There are occasional glimpses of a more energised, manic Carrell, and on these occasions the movie picks up; A case in point is when he and Anton are suspended above the ground in a plastic cage, an attempt to out derring-do rival act Steve Gray. Perhaps it’s just Carrell’s weak spot; he can play stupid, or naïve or benevolent, but when it comes to self-centredness he’s a bit lost. There needed to be more of his desperation (“He put a dog in my pants, Jane. He put a live dog in my pants. No one’s ever done that to me before”). His misanthropy fails to amuse and his sleaziness is plain tiresome.


Burt and Anton’s act is Siegfried and Roy by way of David Copperfield, who makes a cameo to show what a good sport he is.  Steve Buscemi fares much better than Carrell amid this Vegas campery, As an Adam Sandler regular, he knows what it is to slum it in feeble comedies, and he brings guilelessness to Anton that probably wasn’t there in the script. You can certainly see where feeble ideas like his Operation Presto are heading a mile off (“I bring magic, not food and water”).


If Burt never engages, the opposite is true of Gray. No matter how much we are told that he is a “terrible human being and a really bad magician” or “I know he sucks”, everything about Carrey’s performance says otherwise. He may be 10 years older than Carrell, but he’s still got it. Carrey is firing on all cylinders and this is his best comic character in years, a reminder of why he made it so big in the first place He’s a master of antic posturing and, unlike Carrell’s Burt, his arrogance is so zesty and gleeful that we can’t help but be pulled along for the ride with him.


Steve Gray, “Brain Rapist”, is the sort who will tear a card from his cheek and then stitches the flesh back together; he’s not so much a magician as a Jackass. He challenges himself to hold his urine for 12 days, sleeps on red-hot coals, burns “Happy Birthday” into his arm and trepans himself. Oh, and does unspeakable things to a puppy. Whenever he absents the screen it’s for too long. I can’t see that director Don Scardino intended for Carrey to steal the show so completely, but that’s what he does.


Alan Arkin has fun as the inspiration for Burt (looking remarkably like Harvey Keitel when he is “youthed-up”, although James Gandolfini’s billionaire hotel owner is underwritten (it’s amusing to hear that he suggested his son have Miley Cyrus, Justin Beiber or Mandy Patinkin perform at his birthday; they missed out not getting Patinkin to cameo).


Whenever Carrey’s onscreen the movie bursts with anarchic brio, making the Carrell sequences even more turgid in comparison. Carrey’s never really gone away, but his lust for mega-hits seems to have dampened of late. It’s just as well since both this and Kick-Ass 2 have been misfires. As the guest star he’s the winner in both cases, though; he can’t get the blame for them bombing and the praise for him as been almost universal. Carrell meanwhile has always mixed studio and indie fare, and since he’s never been a sure thing at the box office he may not be too concerned at Burt’s fizzle.  And there’s always Despicable Me 3 to look forward to.

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …